The Afghhan Taliban on Monday seized partial control of Kunduz city Monday, witnesses said, the first time they have done so since being ousted from power by a US-led invasion.
The hardline Islamist group hoisted its flag over key buildings and the main square of the northeastern city of Kunduz, offering a potentially powerful image in a country that laboured under its rule until 2001.
“The Taliban have taken over our neighbourhood, which is part of Kunduz city, I can see their fighters all around,” said an AFP journalist in the city, Afghanistan’s fifth largest.
He added that some were racing police vehicles around the city and had raised the black and white flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the group’s official name) over the homes of government officials.
The Taliban’s ability to penetrate the city, even if only temporary, will be seen as a major psychological blow to the country’s NATO-trained police and army who have been fighting the Islamist militants this year without the front-line help of foreign forces since the end of their combat mission in December 2014.
The Islamist group has been largely absent from cities since being driven from power by the US and its allies, but has maintained often-brutal rule over swathes of the countryside.
A senior tribal elder in Kunduz, 150 miles (250 kilometres) north of Kabul, said the militia had control of one of the city’s districts, while a second elder added his house was now around 100 metres (yards) from their forward line.
“The Taliban are less than one kilometre from the city’s centre,” the elder, who requested anonymity, added.
Saad Mukhtar, head of a 200-bed government hospital, said the Taliban had control of the building and were hunting for wounded Afghan troops.
Government officials denied the reports that Taliban were in charge, and said they are battling the insurgents on the city’s outskirts.
“The city has been cleared of the enemy but still challenges remain in some areas including police district number three,” Sediq Sediqi, a spokesperson for the interior ministry told a news conference, adding that the Afghan air force was carrying out strikes.
He said that so far 25 enemy fighters had been killed, revising down an earlier figure of 35 given by the government.
The Taliban have been waging a bloody insurgency since a US-led invasion booted them from power in late 2001, and have stepped up attacks during a summer offensive launched in late April against the Western-backed government in Kabul.
On Sunday 13 people were killed and 33 wounded at a volleyball match in the eastern province of Paktika.
The Taliban denied being behind the attack in Paktika, a volatile frontier region considered a stronghold of their allies the Haqqani network.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s thinly-spread security forces are increasingly having to deal with the threat from the self-styled Islamic State group, which is looking to make inroads in the troubled country.
At the weekend, it launched coordinated attacks on police checkpoints in the eastern province of Nangarhar, killing at least three officers.
The two groups -- both with their blood-curdling brand of Islamic fundamentalism -- are seen as engaged in a contest for influence in Afghanistan.
But after years of costly involvement, Washington and its allies have tired of the blood and treasure they were expending in the country, and have pulled back from frontline combat.
Most NATO troops had left by the end of 2014, although a residual force of around 13,000 remains for training and counter-terrorism operations.
Peace overtures by the government of President Ashraf Ghani over summer ended in failure, as civilian casualties soared to a record high in the first half of 2015 according to a UN report.
It said 1,592 civilians were killed, a six percent fall over last year, while the number of injured jumped four percent to 3,329.